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Call Me By Your Name and The Shape of Water Fearlessly Display Love

3 minute read

The Weinstein scandal and other outrages have kicked off an avalanche that no one can outrun. Women are angry, and men are confused. Everyone is talking about gender and power dynamics. But no one is talking about love.

It may be useful to remember that art can do the talking for us. When it comes to love and sex, being confused is not only permissible, it’s also part of the bargain. Two of the finest movies of the year tread fearlessly into the territory of desire and eroticism entwined with love. What, after all, could be more bewildering than love between a human and a being whom some might call a monster? In Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, Sally Hawkins–in a radiant, wordless performance–plays Elisa, a young woman living in early 1960s Baltimore. Elisa is mute, and she makes her living as a nighttime cleaning woman at a top-secret government research facility. It’s there that she meets the love of her life, a sea god who is being kept prisoner. Slender and muscular, with sleek coppery skin that’s streaked with iridescent green, he’s like the Creature from the Black Lagoon reimagined by Rockwell Kent.

This paramour from the deep is portrayed with supreme elegance by the actor and contortionist (and del Toro regular) Doug Jones–the performance is more like dance than anything, a muscular ode to the idea that freedom and grace can be won, but only after we break free from caution and fear. The Shape of Water is a sensual adult fairy tale that leads us deep into a dream. Waking up, and re-entering the everyday world, is the part you have to steel yourself for.

Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name–adapted from André Aciman’s gorgeously detailed aphrodisiac novel–leads us into an interior world of another sort. Young newcomer Timothée Chalamet plays Elio, a precocious 17-year-old summering with his American father and Italian mother (Michael Stuhlbarg and Amira Casar) in the northern Italian countryside in the mid-1980s. He’s prepared to spend this summer as he has spent most others, fending off boredom by transcribing music and reading almost perpetually.

Then a guest arrives, a casually presumptive American named Oliver (Armie Hammer). Minutes after showing up, he flops face-down on the guest bed to sleep off his jet lag, not caring that he’ll miss his hosts’ family dinner. Then he proceeds to come and go as if he owned the joint, often vanishing with little more than the word “Later” tossed over his shoulder, like the snap of a towel. His body, with its long, swinging limbs as gangly-graceful as those of a giraffe, doesn’t quite belong in this landscape–an almost surreally perfect paradise of sun-dappled ponds and trees bearing lush burdens of apricots–yet he insinuates himself into it with breezy authority.

He also charms everyone almost instantly–except for the awkward adolescent Elio, who at first views this swaggering interloper with a mingling of contempt and envy. What unfolds between them is, in Guadagnino’s hands, a kind of languorous hypnotism, a meeting of spiritual ardor and tender physicality. “When you least expect it, nature has cunning ways of finding our weakest spot,” Elio’s father tells him. Call Me by Your Name is all about yielding to nature, which means succumbing to its mystery, its sorrow and the everlasting beauty of its wistfulness, passed down in the cells of every plant and living creature.

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